“There is a human resource crisis in care that is driven partly by the government’s tolerance of incompetent staff.” The South African Health Review 2016 published a report on the dismal state (pun intended) of health care in the public sector, particularly on government’s inability to attract competent healthcare professionals to work in public healthcare facilities. The sector has 100 000 vacant posts, while government is spending R1.5 billion on hiring temporary agency nurses. The inferences are vexing – but another time.
The report is scathing and makes no bones about incompetency, lack of ethics, shocking governance, irregular expenditure, maladministration, unaccountability, inability to make decisions, poor systems and structures, and pitiable leadership. For a moment I thought I was perusing a public sector infrastructure report.And while all this pervades the fabric of the public health sector, the proletariat are called upon to eat cake – our population is getting fatter, AIDS-related diseases are responsible for a third of deaths, and more people are suffering from hypertension.It’s not so much that there are limited professionals in the sector so much as there is a lack of interest in working for the public sector. Engineering professionals, not unlike medical professionals, find no attraction to the public sector. While competitive salaries are important, it’s the other issues that the medics are complaining about that keep us, too, from the public sector.
But I want to start at the top. The Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, is an unfortunate example to the intent of this article. The honourable minister is ironically, a medical doctor. But I am counting on the fact that civil engineers, by virtue of our training, are better positioned for integrated and multifaceted problem-solving than other professions – this will make for interesting dinner table debate. But I have learned quickly in my short stint in executive leadership that the rot or bloom starts at the top – any institution, whether the family, large corporation or republic, resigns to adopting the culture of its leaders. A case in point – is it a wonder that crime, which is a disregard for the rule of formal or unspoken law, is a bane of modern South African living, when our president faces 783 corruption charges?
I would like to advocate that all public sector infrastructure delivery institutions should be led by competent, experienced, registered, polymathic civil engineers. The primary purpose of municipalities, for example, is to conceive, deliver, operate and maintain infrastructure for all echelons of society. Financial management and human resource management, together with other departments, are peripheral services. These fringe services should in no way dominate the leadership of infrastructure service delivery, but should play a support role in this regard. Short of it being compulsory then that the city or town manager be that unique brand of civil engineer, it is not entirely incoherent that every municipality or metropolitan should have a City or Town Engineer with the power to make decisions.
The same principle applies to the Departments of Transport, Public Works, and Water and Sanitation, and their relevant delivery mechanism, the state-owned enterprises. The current Minister of Transport has qualifications in social work and management, while the Minister of Public Works is a school teacher, and our Minister of Water and Sanitation has certifications in economics, planning and leadership. It is also shocking to learn that ESKOM and ACSA have one engineering practitioner each on their boards of directors, while TRANSNET and TELKOM have no registered engineering professionals. It comes as no surprise that SANRAL has three engineering professionals on their board.
So this is my contribution to preventing South Africa from receiving a downgrade to junk status. When Minister Trevor Manuel, a civil engineering practitioner by training, resigned as Minister of Finance in 2008, the move unsettled the financial markets and the Rand took a serious knock. I hypothesise that the opposite also applies. The appointment of capable, competent and dynamic civil engineering professionals in appropriate leadership positions in our infrastructure delivery units will endorse the message that South Africa is serious about doing things differently. This will be the start of bringing about corresponding stability in our infrastructure economy, which should incur the benefit of securing international confidence to invest in South Africa again.